Who Do You Think You Are?
A Homily for ADOTS Morning Prayer: 26 February 2021
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
How you ask a question makes all the difference in the world: tone of voice, intonation, stress, intent, even body language and facial expression. In my previous vocation as math teacher, I had many students ask me this same question: When are we ever going to use this? Some asked it as a challenge to the importance of the mathematics curriculum, and even as a challenge to my judgment and authority as teacher: When are we ever going to use this?! Other students asked it as honest inquiry, trying to fit this new bit of knowledge into the whole scheme of mathematics: When — with “how” implied — are we ever going to use this? The words were the same, but the questions were different because the spirit and intent of the questioners were very different. It was easy to tell the questions apart because of how they were asked.
A few years ago my family enjoyed a television program called “Who do you think you are?” It was similar to a current program, “Finding Your Roots” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a show that invites a celebrity to explore his or her ancestry with the help of professional genealogists. The show centered on the issue of identity, of self-perception: Who do you think you are? In other words: What do you know about yourself and your heritage? In the course of the show, there were often surprises along the family tree, so that it almost always ended with the celebrity having a new and often vastly different understanding of his or her identity. Had you ever imagined that you were descended from the Queen of Lower Slabovia and that if you lived there today you would be treated as royalty? Some of the surprises were darker: Did you know that you descended from slave traders? or Did you know that your ancestors fought for the British in the American Revolution?
The question, posed rightly as on the television program, posed with the proper spirit and intent, is an invitation to self-exploration and self-knowledge: Who do you think you are? But, I’ve heard that same question used quite differently, used as a weapon. Have you? Who do you think you are? Can you imagine the Lord of an English manor addressing a cheeky servant with that question in a BBC drama? Who do you think you are? Or perhaps an employer to an employee who challenges a management decision. Who do you think you are? Or — God forbid! — a frustrated math teacher to a challenging student? Who do you think you are?
One way of asking the question is an invitation to recover a lost, true identity. The other way of asking is an attempt to impose a false, and often subservient, identity.
The two forms of this question are on clear display in the opening chapters of Exodus, and I would argue throughout the whole of Scripture. They form the backdrop, the context, to our morning reading from Exodus 5. This selection says it all, really:
Exodus 5:1–9 (ESV): 5 Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’ ” 2 But Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.” 3 Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest he fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.” 4 But the king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why do you take the people away from their work? Get back to your burdens.” 5 And Pharaoh said, “Behold, the people of the land are now many, and you make them rest from their burdens!” 6 The same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people and their foremen, 7 “You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as in the past; let them go and gather straw for themselves. 8 But the number of bricks that they made in the past you shall impose on them, you shall by no means reduce it, for they are idle. Therefore they cry, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.’ 9 Let heavier work be laid on the men that they may labor at it and pay no regard to lying words.”
Can’t you just hear that question behind everything else that Pharaoh says here: “Who you think you are,” coming into my presence, making demands on me in the name of a god I don’t even know? This is, at the heart of this story, the issue of identity — the identity of the Hebrews. “Who do you think you are?” Pharaoh asks in word and deed. And he answers his own question; remember, one of the purposes of this question is to impose, by intimidation and power, a false sense of identity on another. “I’ll tell you who you are, Hebrews. You are slaves. You are workers. You are mine.” And the record shows that the Hebrews had begun to accept this false identity as their own.
But, Moses and Aaron come asking the question differently: Who do you think you are? What is your true identity? And, in word and deed, Moses and Aaron take these Hebrews back through the twists and turns of their family tree, revealing and recapturing the true identity of a people.
You are not slaves; you are the free sons and daughters of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Abraham, our father, whom God called from Ur of the Chaldees. Abraham, with whom God made covenant to grant him land and a multitude of people through whom all the world would be blessed. And Isaac, the promised son through whom the covenant was continued. Jacob, who wrestled with God and who would not let go until God blessed him — our father who strove with God and prevailed. You are not slaves; you are the free sons and daughters of the Patriarchs, the chosen of God, a holy and blessed and precious people.
You are not workers; you are worshippers. Your identity is not found in six days of labor — or seven days of toil here in Egypt — but in the Sabbath Day of rest and in worship. Your identity is not found in Egypt, but at the end of a three day’s journey into the wilderness, in a sacrifice to the LORD your God, in a feast before the God of Israel. You are not workers; you are worshippers.
You are not Pharaoh’s property, but God’s own possession. Of all the nations on earth, God chose you, so that he rightly says to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” And though Pharaoh arrogantly says, “I do not know the LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go,” know this: Pharaoh will soon know the LORD, the LORD mighty in battle, the God of the angel armies. Pharaoh will know, and in that knowledge he will be destroyed. You are not Pharaoh’s property, but God’s own possession for whom God is jealous.
This is who you are: not slaves, but sons and daughters; not workers, but worshippers, not Pharaoh’s disposable property, but God’s cherished possession.
Who do you think you are? How that question is asked is important. How we answer it is even more important.
I raise these issues because I think recapturing and retaining a true identity is one the most pressing challenges facing Christians today, as it has been from the beginning. Paul grapples with this in his letter to the Romans:
Romans 12:1–2 (ESV): I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
This is the Exodus question — Who do you think you are? — brought forward a thousand years and even beyond that into our age. And Paul proclaims once again — here and elsewhere — that we are not slaves, but sons and daughters; that we are not workers, but worshippers; that we are not the world’s commodity, but God’s own possession. He exhorts us, he pleads with us: Don’t be conformed to the world; don’t let the world dictate your identity. Be transformed in your mind, in your thinking, in your self-understanding, to realize who you really are in Christ Jesus.
Beloved, the world is only too happy and too ready to tell you who you are. We are not lacking in modern Pharaohs. You are your bank account. You are — for better or worse — your body. You are your race. You are your political party. You are your sexual orientation. You are your choice. You are a producer of goods and services. You are a consumer of goods and services. You are nothing. You are everything.
To all these lies Paul, like Moses before him, stands in opposition to Pharaoh and says to us:
Romans 8:12–17 (ESV): 12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
Who do you think you are? the world asks us as it tries to answer for us, to conform us to its false identity. And we need to be clear about the answer: We are the sons and daughters of God and joint heirs with Christ Jesus; we are the temple of the Holy Spirit and partakers of the divine nature; we are worshippers of the one, true God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and we are his kingdom of priests to his glory and honor, now and unto the ages of ages. Amen.